Priebke with Giachini
Priebke with Giachini Reuters

The death in Rome of a Nazi war criminal has sparked a furor, after the Vatican banned a church funeral, Argentina refused the body and relatives of his victims called for him to be cremated.

Erich Priebke, who was found guilty of a 1944 massacre in Rome and had been living under house arrest in the city, died last week aged 100.

As his body lies in a Rome hospital morgue, debate rages over what to do with the mortal remains of a man who never expressed any regret, insisting to the end that he was just following orders.

According to an AFP report from Monday, the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, which hunts Nazis around the world, said the body should be sent back to his native Germany which has laws that would prevent a neo-Nazi gathering.

Tensions are running particularly high ahead of the 70th anniversary of the deportation of thousands of Jews from Rome's ancient Jewish Ghetto by Nazi troops on October 16, 1943, according to AFP.

There is concern that any ceremony could draw far-right sympathizers after a group tried to lay flowers at the house where he died and a scrawl reading "Honor to Priebke" next to a black swastika symbol appeared on a wall nearby.

Priebke's lawyer Paolo Giachini had initially said that the former SS officer would be buried near his wife in Argentina, where he lived for 40 years after the war - but Argentina refused.

Rome religious authorities have also said there can be no church funeral for him, although a private religious ceremony at home could be held.

Giachini on Monday was quoted by the Corriere della Sera daily as saying there could be a private ceremony at home later on Monday or Tuesday but the burial site is still uncertain.

The lawyer mentioned the possibility of burial at the German war cemetery in Pomezia near Rome, but a graveyard official told AFP this was not possible because Priebke did not die in wartime.

Priebke escaped from a British POW camp in Italy immediately after the Second World War and was supplied with Vatican travel documents by a Nazi-sympathizing Catholic bishop.

He lived for nearly 50 years in Argentina, before being extradited to Italy in 1996 for trial.

He was sentenced to life in prison in 1998 for his role in the bloodbath at Rome's Ardeatine caves that left 335 people dead, including 75 Jews.

Because of his age and ill health he was allowed to serve out his life sentence at Giachini's home.

The Wiesenthal Center said the body should now be sent back to his native Germany and cremated.

"That would be the most efficient way to leave no trace of a Nazi criminal like Priebke," director Efraim Zuroff was quoted as having told La Stampa daily.

"Hitler's body was also burnt and that was the best solution because it allowed the destruction of everything Nazism represented," he said.

Relatives of Priebke's victims said he should be cremated and the ashes scattered in secret.

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